Less than 10% of industry members surveyed about a proposed national generic promotion for fruits and vegetables responded, and almost half of those said they hadn’t even heard of the plan.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation e-mailed electronic survey to more than 3,000 growers, shippers, processors and importers in June, and 248 responded — an 8% response rate. About three-fourths considered themselves first handlers, the ones who would be paying for the promotion.

Of those who responded, 55% said they had heard of the promotion board, which the foundation proposed to raise consumption through an estimated $30 million in annual assessments.

“That was the thing that surprised us the most — that half hadn’t heart of it yet,” Pivonka said. “I don’t know if it’s just a busy time of year of people are so focused with the here and now, and everybody’s stressed with the economy. But I was surprised, quite frankly, that the response was so low.”

What’s more, 40% of respondents had not heard of the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters program, officially introduced to consumers in March 2007 and phased in to replace the 5 a Day slogan.

Overall, half of the respondents reported being undecided about the concept, 31% said they are opposed and 22% said they are in favor of the promotion board.

PBH promotion board survey garners little response

"I'd like to see a survey sent only to the first handlers, who PBH is proposing to have pay for this...It's easy for someone to say they are in favor of the idea when they won't be the one paying for it."

- Lorri Koster, Mann Packing Co. Inc.

In workshops at United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association conventions, grower-shippers raised concerns about whether it would benefit the industry. One concern is the trickle-down effect of the assessments on growers, even though they would be charged to first handlers. Another is whether increasing demand for fruits and vegetables would actually be beneficial for growers because changing supplies can happen very quickly.

The concerns voiced through the survey included an opposition to more assessments and a fear that not everybody would benefit equally.

“I’d like to see a survey sent only to the first handlers, who PBH is proposing to have pay for this, and see where the percentages come in,” said Lorri Koster, vice president of marketing for Salinas, Calif.-based Mann Packing Co. Inc. “To me, that is the only statistic that matters at the end of the day. It’s easy for someone to say they are in favor of the idea when they won’t be the one paying for it.”

Supporters of the plan have cited successes such as the “Got Milk” campaign for milk, and said that the produce industry needs a similar campaign.

“Overall, the ROI is about ten-fold for the producer who pays into it,” Pivonka said.

In the survey, 42% said they already pay some form of marketing order assessment, but results didn’t clarify if that’s a sticking point to the plan.

Although more of the large companies had heard of the promotion board than smaller companies, it’s unclear if company size or recognized consumer brand influenced opinions.

“Between the low survey response rate and the fact that so many who did respond had not heard about the promotion board concept prior to the survey, PBH outreach about the proposed promotion board will continue prior to a second survey being fielded,” said Paul Klutes, director of brand sales for C.H. Robinson and chairman of PBH’s board of trustees, in a news release.

Koster said the low awareness level supports her opinion that the industry is grappling with much more pragmatic issues and challenges.

Like other promotion and research boards, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would oversee this one if approved.

PBH promotion board survey garners little response"Our intent is to go the course between now and the end of October. We want to get through PMA and talk to more people, just try to get more feedback through the event, and use that input in the PBH executive committee meetings."

- Elizabeth Pivonka, PBH 

The foundation’s executive board plans to vote on the proposal this fall and, if the vote is in favor, start working on a proposal for the USDA. Because of the proposal process and a public comment period, if approved by the USDA, assessments wouldn’t start until at least 2012.

“We’ll either stop or there will be a movement to put together a proposal that would go to USDA,” Pivonka said. “We really just wanted to know what people thought of it before we put together a formal proposal.”

PBH’s executive committee plans to meet late October to review and decide its next steps.

“Our intent is to go the course between now and the end of October,” Pivonka said. “We want to get through PMA (Fresh Summit) and talk to more people, just try to get more feedback through the event, and use that input in the PBH executive committee meetings.”

In the meantime, any company that wishes to be a part of further survey efforts can contact Pivonka at epivonka@pbhfoundation.org. More information on the proposed board is available at www.fvcampaign.org.

The next session covering the topic is scheduled for Oct. 3 in Anaheim, Calif., in conjunction with PMA’s Fresh Summit. Panelists include Rick Antle, chief executive officer of Tanimura & Antle, Salinas; Bob Keeney, acting Agricultural Marketing Service associate administrator for USDA; Maureen Torrey Marshall, vice president of Torrey Farms Inc., Elba, N.Y.; Bruce Taylor, president of Taylor Farms Inc., Salinas; Harry Kaiser, professor of marketing at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and Klutes.